1643 – The Royalists Miss Their Chance


“Royalist Officers, Oxford, 1643”, Richard Scollins.

For those who gravitated to the royal standard in late 1642, on the other hand, little had happened to make that seem like the wrong decision. There was, of course, no fundamental difficulty for Charles in assuming an executive function. Military affairs were handled by Charles personally, with a council of war, consisting of both military men and civilians, taking the place of his Privy Council. The Earl of Lindsey was initially Lord General of the royalist forces, and following his death at Edgehill his position was taken by Patrick Ruthven, Lord Forth. Rupert commanded the horse, by virtue of a commission direct from the King, something which caused conflict with Lindsey before the battle of Edgehill. Similar tensions about Rupert’s command erupted later in the war, and with Prince Maurice, who was also commissioned directly by the King although not formally superior to other commanders. Sir Jacob Astley was in overall command of the infantry. Relations within the council of war were not always easy, and it is generally said that there was a tension between the relatively hardline royalism of the military men and more moderate counsels in the council of war and the court. The council was not always obeyed, and was not always in regular contact with the men on the ground, but at least there was a clearer executive authority. There might also be a question about the quality of advice and experience of his advisers however. Many senior figures from the 1630s had fled, or were dead or in prison, or fighting against him: Hyde, Ashburnham, Digby and Prince Rupert had not been at all significant in royal counsels three years earlier. The range of opinion available to him was relatively broad, reaching to much ground shared with the parliamentary coalition, but the loss he suffered in the quality of his advice is more difficult to measure.

Charles also had less need for innovation in his central administration since the bulk of his officeholders had joined him in Oxford. His appointments rested on clearly established legal powers, and in local government he preferred to work through the established institutions: as commissioners in the Marcher counties put it in 1645, it was hoped ‘that during this war your Majesty will order that as near as the necessity of the times can admit, our ancient laws shall be observed in force and reputation’. In areas of royalist control there was an evident desire to work with the authority of Grand Juries, assizes and quarter sessions, whereas in many parliamentarian areas the new committees largely took over from these bodies.

The royalists were also slower to use new forms of taxation, for example adopting an excise only in December 1643. In part this was because of their dependence on individuals to raise regiments and on contributions from particular individuals. Sixty-seven men paid £70,000 between them for baronetcies, and the Marquess of Worcester paid £318,000 in one go. The Earl of Pembroke was said eventually to have spent £1,000,000 in the royal service and Henrietta Maria’s gallant exploits during the year had yielded very significant benefits. Moreover, the King had taken most of the traditional offices and revenues with him – Chancery, Exchequer and the Court of Wards continued to act, and in the first year of the war nearly one third of the revenues came from traditional sources. The royalist equivalent of the assessment, the contribution, was not a fixed burden but a payment related to the number of troops in arms in each county, and consent was sought from the Grand Jury or an assembly of freeholders. Similarly, the sequestration policy on the royalist side was tempered by a desire to see victims indicted for treason at common law and, where that had not been done, to allow them to appeal against sequestration at the next assize. This system was sufficient until royalist control of its heartland slipped in 1645 – until then, the royalist financial administration sufficed, and gave less offence to pre-war scruples than the parliamentarian equivalents.

On the whole, therefore, innovative committee government was more clearly a parliamentary phenomenon, and it was possible for royalists to make great play with the constitutional impropriety of the parliamentarian effort. And it was not just royalists or moderate parliamentarians, either: on 1 May, Parliament sent embassies to Scotland and Holland, but this prompted Henry Marten to ask, rather unhelpfully, whether Parliament could enter such negotiations without first claiming sovereign power. Once again, the more vigorous proponents of the parliamentary position were not necessarily helpful in maintaining the integrity of the alliance.

For propaganda purposes, however, this respectable royalism had an obvious Achilles heel: the behaviour of some elements of the royalist army. Rupert’s behaviour at Brentford, Marlborough and Birmingham gave him an unsavoury contemporary reputation which he has never entirely shaken off. The Earl of Derby’s decision to torch Lancaster lost him his war and led more or less directly to his exile on the Isle of Man. Such actions were defensible, or at least arguable, under the laws of war. Belligerents recognized three kinds of constraint on their actions – the laws of nature and nations (which defined what might be expected of a reasonable, moral Christian); the laws of war (an informal international code of customary expectations); and the military law which formally codified the expectations of particular armies, drawn up specifically for them. While these overlapping codes restrained violence they also of course licensed it, and there was often room for interpretation about the extent of that licence. For example, an order backed by military law might seem to contravene the laws of nature and nations, and behaviour licensed by the laws of war might also seem to breach the expectations of those laws. Sacking captured towns was a case in point here: according to the laws of war it was illegitimate to sack a town that had surrendered, but not illegitimate if the town had not surrendered. This served to encourage surrender, once it was clear that the town would fall, and therefore limited bloodshed. But it did not mean that it was compulsory to sack towns that had not surrendered. In their judgement of this issue the royalists, or at least Rupert and Derby, appeared more ruthless than their parliamentarian opponents.

In the long run, it is often said, this hampered the royalist war effort. As early as January 1643, at least if the London press is to be believed, the course of military events could be affected by local people in arms but not in the paid service of one side or the other. The desperate defence of Bradford against the royalists by local people in arms was celebrated in London newsbooks as a revival of club law – the use of the club to secure obedience, the triumph of force over argument – and the example was urged on the rest of the country. It was soon taken up in Rotherham.58 In April, the Earl of Derby was reported to have gone from Manchester to Whalley with 500 horse, 500 foot and about 2,000 ‘clubmen’. There they seized the town, and got into the church and steeple, but were flushed out by 200 musketeers, thirty horse and 200 clubmen. Having regained the town they were challenged by the earl to come out and fight, which they did, ‘and routed all his Army, and chased them about six miles’. Anticipating scepticism, the writer added: ‘which is firmly verified by letters from those parts’.

As spring turned to summer, there were no active peace negotiations in train and parliamentary efforts to strengthen the war effort were offering further ammunition for their opponents in the paper war. As Parliament’s war effort escalated, the ‘cause’ was more clearly defined, but in ways that left a flank exposed to propagandists such as Ryves. The royalists did not have it all their own way, however. While they were more conservative in their demands from the civilian populations under their control, and in the ways in which they made those demands, they too were vulnerable – the relatively maximal view taken by a number of royalist commanders about honourable behaviour in war did the cause long-term damage. If the political battle was poised, however, for Parliament the military news got worse.

For much of the spring the Earl of Essex had been relatively immobile, covering the western approaches to London. On 13 April he left Windsor and laid siege to Reading, which had the effect of forcing Rupert to come south from Lichfield, but this attempted relief of Reading failed and it was surrendered on 26 April. This victory was important for parliamentary morale, but it was not followed up – Essex’s army, hampered by disease and lack of pay, did not leave Reading until 10 June.60 This lack of mobility on the part of the main army proved a problem for the overall fortunes of Parliament’s forces, something which was held against Essex.

On the day before the surrender of Reading, William Waller’s parliamentary forces had surprised Hereford, and James Chudleigh’s had fought an inconclusive engagement against Ralph Hopton at Sourton Down. These were good days for Parliament but Sourton Down was followed by an important royalist victory at Stratton (16 May). Hopton then advanced into Somerset, despite the fact that it left parliamentary strongholds (Bideford, Barnstaple, Plymouth, Dartmouth and Exeter) to his rear, and the gamble paid off. Having joined up with Prince Maurice and the Earl of Hertford in early June his advance continued. Waller had in the meantime been forced to abandon Hereford and failed to take Worcester on 29 May, and Hopton was advancing rapidly through the south-west. When Essex was eventually able to leave Reading to advance on Oxford, he met a decisive defeat at Chalgrove Field (18 June). Once again particular details were as important to morale as the overall position: John Hampden received two shots in the shoulder at Chalgrove Field and made his way painfully to Thame, where he died six days later in agony from his wounds. The plunder of Wycombe on 25 June led to panic in London and criticism of Essex’s generalship. Pym’s reaction was characteristic – recommending the tendering of a new oath, the Vow and Covenant, to Essex’s troops. On 28 June, instead, Essex tendered his resignation, though it was not accepted.

As Hopton swept all before him he was brought into direct confrontation with Waller’s army. Battle was avoided at Chewton Mendip, 12 June, and the royalists instead swung round Waller’s army through Frome and Bradford-upon-Avon. Manoeuvring continued, leading to a skirmish at Monkton Farleigh on 3 July and to the pitched battle at Lansdown on 5 July. Victory there was hard won for the royalists, who found themselves too short of supplies to lay effective siege to Bath. Instead they moved on towards Devizes and Waller was able to meet them again at Roundway Down on 13 July. Waller’s army was destroyed in a battle more remarkable for bravery than tactical shrewdness, but the impact on the military and political landscape was no less significant for that. Waller was critical of Essex for failing to prevent the march of royalist forces from Oxford to support Hopton’s campaign: it seemed strange ‘that he, lying with his whole army within ten miles of Oxford, should suffer the chief strength of that place to march thirty [sic] miles to destroy him’. Following this catastrophic defeat Waller withdrew to Gloucester, then Evesham and finally London. The royalists now moved easily in the West Country, Bath was abandoned on 23 July and, on 26 July, Rupert stormed Bristol and the parliamentary commander, Nathaniel Fiennes, was court-martialled for surrendering too easily.

In the meantime, Newcastle had won a significant victory at Adwalton Moor on 30 June, leading to an undignified retreat by the parliamentarians to Hull. They were only able to do that because the townspeople had prevented Sir John Hotham surrendering the town to the royalists. As the summer progressed, therefore, it was most certainly the royalists rather than the parliamentarians who had most to cheer. Although complete disaster had been averted following Adwalton Moor, when the surrender of Hull was prevented, the picture in the north was bleak indeed for the parliamentarians. The Fairfaxes had been driven out of the West Riding after that defeat, and were cut off from other parliamentary forces. As a result, all of the north was in Newcastle’s control, with the exception of Hull.

On the day of the great victory at Roundway Down, Henrietta Maria met Charles on the field at Edgehill, bringing with her 3,000 men, eight or nine artillery pieces and 100 wagons of supplies. By late July it was feared that Hull would not be able to stand and Cromwell and Meldrum were sent to support the parliamentary position at Gainsborough. Having taken Burghley House, Cromwell’s troops were able to relieve Gainsborough on 28 July owing to disciplined and heroic cavalry action. This boosted morale, but hardly turned the tide of the war in the north. There were not enough infantry to hold Stamford and Cromwell drew back to Spalding and Peterborough. This scanty band was all that stood between Newcastle and an advance on London, and the Earl of Manchester was given a commission to command the forces of the associated counties to resist this advance. Early August saw further royalist triumph in the west, too: soon after the capture of Bristol came the capture of Dorchester, Weymouth and Portland. Erle abandoned the siege of Corfe Castle, and Dorset, with the exception of Poole and Lyme, was in the hands of the royalists. Waller was given an independent command, a reflection of the disaffection with Essex after his failure to advance from Reading: many seem to have shared Waller’s view that his defeats reflected a lack of support from Essex.

So compelling were the royalist advances of these months that this may have been another moment when they might have won the war. Victories at Hopton Heath, Roundway Down and Adwalton Moor, the surrender or capture of Bath, Bristol and a number of more minor towns, the death of Hampden and the political vulnerability of Essex all posed a serious problem of morale to the parliamentarians, besides the obvious military advantages that had been won. Parliamentary forces were everywhere under pressure and resources to renew them not yet available, and political will among the leadership in London was clearly measured.

As it turned out, however, the royalists did not press home this advantage. The Yorkshire levies refused to move south and Newcastle was forced to besiege Hull, while Hopton’s Cornish levies similarly wanted to stay at home to protect their county from the garrison at Plymouth. Welsh troops refused to cross the Severn until Gloucester was taken. Since neither the northern nor the western armies were willing to advance further the real question was what to do with the armies in central England. With Waller beaten and back in London the way was clear for an advance on the capital, but Prince Rupert was instead sent to take Gloucester. The Parliamentary commander there, Massey, was thought to be wavering in his loyalty to Parliament, and certainly Gloucester was no more defensible than Bristol. Taking Gloucester would cement the royalist position, clearing communications between Oxford and south Wales and giving control of the Severn Valley. But posterity has blamed the royalists for failing to move decisively on London. As on the other side there was division over war aims too: between those who simply wanted to win the war and those who wanted to win the war in order to preserve the constitutional settlement of 1641, those who ‘wished to carry on the war with a view to the eventual peace’. This division erupted between Prince Rupert and the Earl of Hertford and between Prince Maurice and the Earl of Caernarvon over their conduct following victories in Bristol and Dorset. There were military arguments in favour of the more cautious strategy and it is not clear that the royalist armies were really in a position to advance at this moment. But the relatively conservative decision to move on Gloucester rather than London probably reflected the influence of moderate counsels as much as military considerations. In any case it was this decision which probably saved Parliament’s bacon: if the three royalist forces had pushed on in concert towards London victory might well have been possible.

When Rupert arrived before Gloucester, Massey refused to surrender and this led to a second crucial decision – to lay siege to the city rather than storm it. This decision arose, it is said, from Charles’s own distaste for the human costs of the storming of Bristol, and to that extent it can be admired, but from a military point of view it was a questionable judgement. Gloucester could probably have been stormed quite quickly, whereas a siege tied down a large number of troops and gave Parliament time to levy a relieving force. On 27 August, Essex led out an army of 15,000 men, including men of the London Trained Bands, which entered Gloucestershire at Stow-on-the-Wold on 4 September. There an attack by Rupert failed and Essex reached Gloucester on 5 September. It was not a moment too soon, since Massey had only three barrels of powder left when they arrived, but their arrival had an immediate effect. Charles, unwilling to be caught between Essex’s army and the Gloucester forces, withdrew rather than risk losses and Essex was able to raise the siege on 8 September. There then began a race to prevent Essex reaching London. This relieved an appalling position, and boosted morale, but military advantage still lay with the royalists. Rupert still intended to engage Essex, but not in front of a hostile city, and further west royalist successes had continued as Barnstaple, Bideford and Exeter surrendered between 28 August and 4 September. West of Poole only Lyme, Plymouth, Dartmouth and Wardour Castle now held out for Parliament.

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